Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fear, fatigue, and failure

Despite a kick butt east breeze blowing at 20+ knots, pushing the water back into our back bays, I  managed to rake out a few clams today. The near full moon helped. I like raking clams almost as much as I like eating them.

Last week's clamming was a disaster. Two of my rake's tines loosened up, and my crankiness was exacerbated by a neap tide. I don't mind coming home with less than a pailful's worth of dinner, but last week I felt defeated. I was racing against the sunset (Jersey law uses sunset to define the end of a clammer's day), and, for the first time in years, I questioned grace.

When I got home, I dropped two clams, shattering them. I returned the remaining few to the bay. Seemed puny of me to eat them while questioning the universe.

So I "fixed" my rake...


...sort of, but enough to make it feel right in my hands again. The sand and mud yielded, gracefully, and I accepted the few clams we will eat in an hour or so.

We will eat the very last of last year's kale and Brussels sprouts, both bolting towards the April sun.

This year's peas have already broken through the ground just a foot or two away from the kale.

Our schools are in a crisis now, but not because of spoiled children or bad parents or awful teachers. We are failing because we are trying to meet standards that are inherently impossible. No state will meet 100% compliance with the NCLB by 2013, because 100% compliance is simply impossible.

Impossible. Look it up....

I worked in pediatrics for years. Not every child is blessed with a brain that works well enough to jump though algebra's hoops. Many children cannot speak at all. Most of you will never see these children.

Trying to do the impossible leads to fatigue, and fatigue leads to fear.

Fear kills education.

I was interviewed by Dina Strasser at The Line last summer. She's wonderful--she had no agenda, she really just wanted to talk--and we discussed what it means to be a professional.

Here's where I think teachers fall short. If we really believed that the testing demanded by NCLB harms the education of children, and a lot of us do, then we should not participate.

Docs are an ornery lot. I used to be one. If any President issued a proclamation we believed harmed our charges, we'd have simply ignored it. That's part of being a professional, knowing more about what you do than governors, presidents, and emperors. The other part is acting on what you know.

We (teachers) got the first part down. We won't be true professionals until we get the second part.


My failure last week, one borne of fatigue, will help me become a better teacher. My students are tired--I've pushed them hard, and I have no problems with that. I do have problems with judging them while they're tired.

State testing for biology is coming up. They will be judged, I will be judged. Fear is the expected, and the wrong, response.

Historically my lambs have done well. I hope that they do well again. If I fret, though, I stop teaching what matters.

I'm not paid enough to teach bull crap. So I won't.

I found a robin's egg in my garden today. It's not just humans that screw up.

There are no trees overhead, and the egg was intact--I think it was laid where it lay.There's a story attached to the egg, but the robin cannot tell me.

Was she scared? Stupid? Just plain indifferent? Does it matter?

I considered taking the egg to school, but if it hatches, then what? So it sits in my garden, a reminder that pretty much everything with mitochondria bumbles its way through this universe as we do. None of us chose this, few of us would willingly give it away.

I think, in the end, celebrating failure is fine, as long as it's an exuberant failure. Too often we confuse fear and fatigue with failure, and that's not the same thing.

Not even close.

Photos are mine, all taken today.
A Wizard of Oz kind of wind is blowing today. These things affect me. As they should.


Tracy Rosen said...

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

doyle said...

Dear Tracy,

Thanks for the words--sent me on a trip to Worstward Ho, from which I might not recover. =)

I'll keep the last six words: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Heck, it's how science works.

Kate said...

Fear of failure is what keeps us from trying. I have a student now who would rather not do something than be less than perfect. His work is exactly binary - it's a zero or you could publish it.

We have to make peace with imperfection. Took me a long time to realize that. I screw up. I'm tired. But I try. And you try. And we keep trying.

And the peas are up.

Jenny said...

"I'm not paid enough to teach bull crap." That's my favorite line in quite some time. It may become my mantra. Of course, at first grade it's easier, I think, to not teach bull crap. It's certainly easier than it was at fourth or fifth grade. I can only imagine the bull crap by high school.

John T. Spencer said...

Every day I am amazed when I pick up an egg. Crazy, I know. But it's something that wasn't there and then it's there. We've had chickens for quite some time now, but the novelty hasn't faded.

Even more amazing? Watching the amazement in my children's eyes when they find an egg.

My world is far different from yours. It was in the nineties here. We're already getting decent-sized squash and the tomato plant is getting bigger.

However, a part of why I enjoy your posts is that I'm reminded how similar our worlds are despite being so different.

So trail back to failure. Sometimes I wonder if I'm failing Micah, because I watch him get really angry or really scared and his highs and lows are so extreme and it gets scary, really scary, because I know what happens to sensitive boys when they get to school.

Then I watch his delight when he finds an egg and it gives me reason to hope that maybe we're doing something right after all.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

The peas are what matter. I keep forgetting this.

The whole binary thing is killing us. Kids are surrounded by "professionalism" (or glitziness).

They are not born with this fear. We cultivate it.

So if it's peas that matter, well, time for my class to sow again. And again.

Dear Jenny,

The bull crap taught in 1st grade lasts a lifetime--I think critters at this stage are like Konrad Lorenz's duckling. Not to put any pressure on you.

Criminy, if we all just stopped with the bull crap (including the official bull crap we pass on out of a weird misplaced sense of duty), our children would be better served.

Dear John,

Each egg is amazing.The novelty will not fade if you keep paying attention, and if your egg production remains personal, not industrial.

There were times I wanted to home school my children. I never did. Prolly just as well I did not.

Do what's right, as you will.

Kathryn J said...

The egg is interesting especially when you consider the backstory. I have never found one outside a nest like that - something to think about. It sounds like you are at a low point. I wish it were not so, you are a light to me.

Your garden is an inspiration. I have some chives and some parsley - nothing else. I never got the kale in last year so it isn't there this spring. Time to get moving on all of that.

NCLB is impossible. Our superintendent resigned today - he will take the helm in Chicago. I liked him but was in the 5% that did not vote "no confidence" a few months ago. I don't blame him for leaving - he was doing good work but blocked by school board and union at every turn. Who knows? Maybe I was wrong about him - I was in the minority but that doesn't automatically qualify as wrong.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I remember scrounging around for beakers. I found the mother lode one day, unopened boxes ordered for a retired teacher. May you stumble upon such a treasure.

I'm fine. We just came off spring break this week.

I wanted to remind myself about the clam rake, though, when I'm leaning hard on my students. It's important to push them hard. It's also important to know that fatigue does bad things.

The robin's egg was still there Sunday afternoon. We do have cowbirds around, but I don't think they'd gently place an egg down in the garden.

I may write about that egg--I am a tiny bit colorblind, but the blue of a robin's egg lights up my brain.

Jessica said...

As far as the NCLB goes I agree that 100% is just not practical. Even if you have the most intelligent students who know the material there will always be testing anxiety, fatigue, and honest mistakes that result in some students scoring low. Unfortunately with all we are required to teach some of the most important lessons will be left out or passed over. Adding the pressure of high stakes testing shifts the focus from true learning to achieving a goal someone else set. Shouldn't we be more focused on teaching students how to learn than telling them what they should know?